Since the second wave of the feminist movement in the 1960s, women have made significant strides integrating into the US workforce. According to a 2008 statistic from the US Department of Labor, women comprise forty-eight percent of the workforce, a considerable shift from a twenty percent ratio recorded in 1950. But when looking closely at that finding, the type of work tends to remain confined to domestic, clerical and administrative occupations. The question that emerges is if enough progress has been made.
“I think that the life of women has definitely improved, but there still needs to be a lot more work,” says Professor Linda Trinh Vo, author of “Asian American Women: The ‘Frontiers’ Reader” and current acting Chair of Asian American Studies at the University of California at Irvine. “I think what happened is that we passed the civil rights acts, and people think that’s all you need to do, but it’s hard to make institutional changes when you haven’t changed the culture.”
According to Vo, “the culture” refers to the underlying assumption that women do not belong in leadership roles, and when looking at the numbers, her theory may indeed be true. Catalyst, a research group dedicated to monitoring the progress of women in the workplace, reported in 2009 that only 13.5 percent of Fortune 500 executive officers were women; a significantly lower percentage in comparison to the ratio of women in the general workplace. This suggests that even though women are making large strides in the workforce, they are still being kept out of the leadership roles.
Some of this is explained by the still prevalent “glass ceiling” effect instilled by social structures, yet some would argue that women simply do not aspire towards these positions; that it is not an institutional obstacle holding women back, but rather an individual one. To this argument the Vietnamese American professor poignantly contests that “even if you do force the policies in some way to create an environment that is conducive to women, just because she’s there doesn’t mean she’s comfortable being in that institution. At times it can be lonely when you’re the first one there.”
Ticiang Diangson, the current Director of Environmental Justice and Service Equity Division for the City of Seattle, can empathize with that assessment.
“I still go into meetings where sometimes I’m the only woman, and sometimes I’m absolutely the only person of color,” says Diangson, who is half Filipino and half Polish American. She adds that being the only woman in the environment where “decisions are made” can initially be awkward, but being the only person of color can be equally uncomfortable. Having witnessed firsthand the struggles of women of color in the Northwest, Diangson’s experience symbolizes the overlooked crossroads of race and gender during the civil rights movement.
While “equal access to the workplace” was a key issue for the woman’s movement in the 1960s, it went unrecognized that historically, women of color had already been working, often as indentured servants, and were already struggling with these issues well before the Civil Rights Era.
While gender should not be a sole factor in judging equality, the numbers are difficult to ignore. According to Catalyst, Asian American women make up only 2.8 percent of those employed in management and professional related occupations. One key reason for the underrepresentation is the past and ongoing stereotypes of API women.
“When you’re a younger, attractive Asian Pacific woman, there are all these assumptions. Females in my generation thought we were supposed to be Suzie Wongs,” recalls Diangson, referring to the late 1950s film and novel “The World of Suzie Wong,” that helped institute the “fetishization” of API women. “For me, it was really hard because I felt like I was being socialized to be a certain way and I was expected to be that way.”
Diangson’s experience reflects the underestimated impact that popular media can have upon its viewers and why popular media needs to be closely analyzed. According to Vo, “the docile and submissive stereotypes of Asian American women are still prevalent and it doesn’t make us look as good leaders.”
However despite the stereotypes, both Vo and Diangson speak about successfully overcoming external and internal obstacles. While external changes are much more gradual, internal changes can still be overcame with a strong support group. For Diangson, the API Women’s Caucus was a gift because it helped API women “forget the stereotypes.” While the API Women’s Caucus no longer exists today, Diangson still recommends young aspiring API women to form their own social networks, connect with a mentor from the older generation, and work on strengthening individual character. Personal development can be just as, if not more important than change with others. From Diangson’s perspective, adaptation and perseverance eventually got her through that glass ceiling, or as she recalls, “things eventually changed as long as I kept on hammering.”